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Not for the Faint of Heart: One Distinguished Engineer’s Journey
BY SERPIL BAYRAKTAR · DISTINGUISHED ENGINEER · UNITED STATES
In my more than seven years at Cisco and nearly three decades in tech, two career highlights stand head and shoulders above the rest. One was when I founded our Women in Technology (WIT) program in 2013. The other was becoming a Distinguished Engineer in 2017.
Both of these milestones almost didn’t happen. Here’s how the journey unfolded.
Becoming a Distinguished Engineer is a pretty big deal for any engineer, male or female. Typically, the percentage of female Distinguished Engineers hovers around 3 percent to 5 percent.
This is not surprising, given the general trend of decreasing diversity in the higher echelons of enterprises. Achieving this honor is a culmination of innovative technical work, thought leadership, and a degree of maturity as a leader.
I am very proud to be one of the handful of female Distinguished Engineers at Cisco.
For me, the journey was a long one. It included work as a network engineer and a routing protocol expert for 27 years in various roles. I spent the first half of my career as a network operator for the National Science Foundation Network or NSFNET, the last publicly funded Internet before the Internet was commercialized and became what it is today.
It was through my mentor on the NSFNET project that I found my way to Silicon Valley. Initially, I worked for a startup where technical women numbered less than the fingers on one hand.
I was a new mom at the time, which meant my life was an endless act of juggling home and work responsibilities. I’d work after dinner or in the wee hours. Weekends were mostly a blur of play dates, birthday parties, chores, and parent volunteering.
To add the challenge, I didn’t have the support of any family members in the U.S. Once my second child was born, the work-life balancing act was not for the faint-hearted.
Technology moves fast and doesn’t wait for anyone. As I tried to keep 10 balls in the air, I began to feel isolated and left behind. And then I met Dave Ward, SVP of Cisco’s Chief Technical and Architect Office (CTAO).
Through Dave, I joined Cisco in early 2012 as one of the first members of CTAO. My career immediately took a turn for the better. Having a manager who encouraged me to take a seat at the table and who gave me the same exciting opportunities as my male colleagues had a transforming impact on my career.
One of the first things Dave asked me to do was to connect all the technical women in the company. At first, I was skeptical about taking this on. I had never been someone who organized social events. I didn’t think there were enough technical women to connect. And on top of that, I was very busy at work. Furthermore, I had just gone through a divorce, so I was taking care of two kids single-handed while continuing to work full time.
But Dave continued to bring up the topic, so I finally decided to give it a try. I began by pulling together a small group of highly technical women and quickly found out how hard it can be to bring people together, even to discuss fascinating topics! After a few meetings, it was clear to me that getting people involved required more than organizing an event.
Then, in 2012, I got an invitation to Cisco’s very first Women in Technology Forum — which later became Women of Impact.
Dave had put in a good word for me with the organizer of the conference, Olivia Shen Green, whose responsibilities at the time included growing diversity and inclusion at Cisco. Olivia and the organizing team reached out to me and we settled on a “table facilitator” role for me. It was going to be my first ever women’s event.
I woke up that morning feeling a bit sick (a sign of anxiety). I considered not going — perhaps taking a sick day. But something in me said,
You are not sick — you’re worried, so you need to go.
Eventually, I made the decision to show up. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted because this was the event that triggered the idea of starting the Women in Technology program.
The Women in Technology Forum targeted technical women and featured workshops, lightning talks, and attendees from all over the world. What impressed me most, however, were the women who got up on stage to talk about their innovative work as engineers.
I was quite taken by the idea of being proud of our work as female engineers and sharing our passion for it with the world. I wondered how many technical women like me might have a similar shift of perception if we did a scaled-down version of this event, but every month. Could it help them to see how valuable and unique their work is?
Of course, I had no idea what it would take to put on such an event, especially every month!
I mentioned the idea to Dave, and soon afterward he walked into my office with Monique Morrow, who was then CTO of Advanced Services. Monique had just returned from a meeting of the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) and UN where the hot topic had been Gender Diversity in IT. I shared my idea of starting a monthly meeting for technical women, and she was immediately on board with it. She even offered to be our first speaker the very next month. I was in shock!
At that point, I went back to Olivia to ask her advice. The timing was fortuitous, and all kinds of help began to flow my way.
Olivia told me about Cisco’s newly established Women in Science and Engineering Employee Resource Organization (WISE ERO). She also mentioned that the group was looking for someone to help technical women. And she offered me a part-time program manager to help run a monthly event. Meanwhile, the WISE leadership team offered to help me announce the event to their members and to help run the event itself. In August last year, I proudly became the chair of WISE.
With their support and encouragement, WIT debuted its first meeting in November of 2013 with Monique speaking on the topic, “Closing the Gender Divide: Why it Matters at the UN Level and My Role.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
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